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Lots of folks are curious to understand if the trend for insect-repellent clothing is actually safe or not. Bottom line, they have actually been deemed safe by organisations such as the US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Safe for everyone including toddlers, pregnant women and nursing mommas.

The reason for the safety question is this: Permethrin. This is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring insecticide pyrethrum, found in chrysanthemum flowers. Chrysanthemum flowers are known to be a good natural deterrent against annoying bugs.  

Permethrin doesn’t mess around as an insecticide; it disables or kills insects after they come into contact with it. 

For humans, permethrin is odorless and isn’t readily absorbed into the skin.  The amount of permethrin allowed by organisations — such as the EPA — to be put in clothing has to be kept at a very low level. This of course limits the exposure to the person wearing the clothing and also, because it is absorbed poorly through the skin, keeps everyone safe. 

The US’s Environmental Protection Agency originally cited that permethrin was not technically considered a bug repellent, but rather an insecticide, as it was designed to kill ticks and insects on contact.  They indicated that it was a neurotoxin and most likely to be a human carcinogen.  They found it to be a highly toxic substance for the environment, but especially for fish and other aquatic life. These observations were based on very high, potent levels.

In 2009 the US’s EPA revised their findings indicating, “permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant, immediate or long-term hazard to people,” including toddlers, pregnant women, or nursing mothers.  The key part of that statement being “factory-treated”, because — where guidelines are followed — the amount is kept to an absolute minimum, so establishing a threshold that has no chance of toxicity.  

Other organizations who back this type clothing include:

  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • World Health Organization
  • National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety
  • American Academy of Family Physicians
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada

​Efficacy of Permethrin

​The EPA designates Permethrin as an insecticide, but when used to treat clothing it is considered a repellent.  It is a synthetic pyrethroid ‘insecticide’, if you will, whose target includes the larvae as well as the adults of various species of bugs. So, from flies to chiggers, as well as midges to ticks and mosquitoes, and on down to fleas it will kill all before it. It is supposedly deadly to ticks.  What the manufacturers of this product’s main goal was is to wipe out mosquitos.  Therein lies a little bit of a problem.

It has been shown to have fantastic results against ticks in many studies.  However, mosquitoes are still able to land on exposed skin in a lot of instances, fly away, and then die. Thus, they are still infecting the people they bite. The U.S. Army has been using insect-repellent clothing since the 1990’s, but it has not seen a reduction in mosquito-born illnesses.  

The EPA has thus indicated that this clothing is not a reason to stop using bug spray.  They strongly encourage you to use insect repellent on any exposed skin in addition to the clothing, just as you would with regular clothing. The chance of infection from these insects is far too great and too deadly a threat to take any chances.

Globally, public health experts are increasingly concerned about a mosquito-transmitted virus: Zika.  They are urging folks to take every anti-mosquito measure available, particularly those living or about to travel to South America or the Caribbean — including Puerto Rico.  The Zika virus has become more widespread and is very dangerous to unborn children, with links to things like microcephaly, along with other exceedingly serious birth defects.

Hunting Perfection

​Female mosquitoes are, in essence, the perfect hunters of blood. They can home in on your carbon dioxide trail from up to 50 metres away, and push their proboscis through most all and any clothing. Even if you buy insect-repellent clothing, mosquitoes are becoming resilient to it, so are still landing, trying and succeeding to get a bite in.  A good rule of thumb when buying your clothing is to get things that are tightly woven, thus stopping the mosquito getting through to your skin. 

Also, it is said that mosquitoes are not fond of light colours.  They are attracted to darker colours and actually like blue and black.  With the mosquitoes’ fashion sense in mind, you should buy your insect repellent clothes in white or khaki if you want to increase your chances of avoiding them. 

How Long Does Permethrin Last

If your things are treated in the proper way they should help keep you bug-free for about four to six weeks — even with regular laundry cycles. Items considered to be non-washable will keep their effectiveness for upwards of forty days.  

Some of the benefits of treating your clothing and the gear that you carry include:

  • It is a completely odorless; no smell whatsoever. Finally, a product that protects you from all those nasty critters, that doesn’t stink.
  • It will not stain or cause damage to any of the fabric that you apply it to — and that includes plastics or any kind of finished surfaces.
  • If you go camping you will find that there are less flying bugs at your site area.
  • Ticks will not be able to attach themselves to you by way of your clothing.  Permethrin is very effective against ticks.

Do It Yourself Permethrin

The US’s EPA does allow regular consumers to use permethrin spray on their own clothing. Outdoor supplies also have permission to do so, including things like sleeping bags, tents, nets and hats or backpacks and hammocks. They insist that the labels be read, warnings followed and instructions carried out to the letter.

  • You must be outside when spraying permethrin and have a hang-line of some sort.  Hang the things you want to spray on a line.  That is the ideal way to do it.  The other option is to spread the items out on a flat surface if a hang-line is unavailable.
  • Make sure to hold the can or bottle about 15 to 20 cm (six to eight inches) from the surface of the fabric or material that you are applying it to and make sure to spray it in a swaying pattern or a zig zagging motion.  Be especially sure to spray cuffs, collars and do all sides.
  • On average your items will need approximately two hours drying time — if you are in a dryer climate — and approximately four hours if you are in a more humid climate. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions to be sure and don’t remove them until they are completely dry all the way through.
Things to remember:

  • Remember safety, and do not spray the product anywhere near a lake, your pets, or a person.
  • It is better that you spray your items when they are new, before you have had the chance to wear them. 
  • If you don’t plan to use an item for some time, store them in resealable plastic bags in order to make the effects last longer.

The US’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises people who are treating clothing themselves with permethrin to understand that they only treat their gear and clothing, not their bodies.  This is essential to remember because it is dangerous in higher doses.  Premethrin can be toxic.  It is not to be applied to the skin.  Do not apply it to undergarments, only outerwear, and never apply permethrin while you are wearing the clothing you are treating.  

Also, you should only spray enough to make your clothes damp. Do not spray to the point where they are dripping wet or that you have to wring them out.  Not too much and not too little.  Labeling on the product should tell you how many items it will be able to treat.

Factory-treated clothing can be washed up to seventy times and still be effective, but if you do it yourself it will need to be retreated much more often, after approximately six washes. This will even include clothes and items that you don’t wash.

Make sure to only use the permethrin that is approved for clothing.  Do not use agricultural grade permethrin and try to dilute it down to the correct concentration.  That is actually illegal and very risky to your and others’ health.

This is an excellent product designed to help protect us from these nasty disease-carrying insects: Let’s use it correctly, safely, and as instructed.